Monday, August 22, 2016

"The Grace of Kings" and Uses of Perspective

Ken Liu's massive silk-punk epic, "The Grace of Kings," is the kind of novel that requires a significant runway in order to achieve flight. The books isn't just long, it's also deliberate and thoughtful in a way at odds with any expectation for instant gratification. Although the pleasures of this book are commensurately immense, it takes a while for the true force of this story to unfold.

As I've said to a few friends when discussing this book, "The Grace of Kings," is in certain respects the "Into the Woods," of fantasy epics. The initial set-up will be familiar to anyone who's read Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Suzanne Collins. A tyrannical ruler causes greater and greater burdens on the people, inspiring a few desperate rebels to resist. This rag-tag collection of heroes experience great adversity and loss until they finally defeat the Evil Empire in one final battle. This is a story as timeless as the Aeneid and Star Wars.

It's also not quite the story Liu is telling here.

The true story, like Sondheim's musical, is what happens after "they lived happily ever after." The two main characters of the book: Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu, represent extremes of personality and behavior. Liu describes Mata as the epitome of classical heroism, a stoic, taciturn force of nature capable of turning a battle through the ferocity of his own indomitable will. Kuni enters the story as a truant, progresses to a lay-about, then a bandit. By the end of the first act, Kuni is declared Duke by acclamation, his every success labeled the product of tricks and luck. Liu's great talent lies in showing how both men's strengths are also their weakness. Although the two join forces in the rebellion, the author never lets us forget the natural tension between the two. The true story emerges from that conflict, like a dark moth from a chrysalis.

A closer comparison then for this novel, at least to me, is Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Although Liu deals in airships and stringless battle kites, mythical sea beasts and alchemical warfare, he is clearly fascinated by the sweep of history, how clever rulers seize opportunity and overthrow tradition in favor of reform and progress. This is not a fantasy story that ends in the same place it began. The world of Dara has been radically, plausibly changed, the technology and culture depicted as a fluid, dynamic thing that I've always found sadly lacking in many other fantasy epics.

Partly this larger perspective comes from the style of storytelling Liu uses. Although the narrative can lean in to hear the thoughts and motivations of a particular character, it can also ascend to a more lofty perch in one smooth transition, detailing the fates of kings, kingdoms, and wars. For me, that was the most instructive thing about this work, and the aspect I'd like to emulate - that humanistic, yet clear-eyed appraisal of the world. It's a voice capable of explaining the motivations of individuals, and also the pressures that move nations.

Looking over other reviews of "The Grace of Kings," I notice that other than its length and deliberate style, some critique its relative paucity of female characters. This is something that troubled me at the beginning as well, with only the wife of one of the characters receiving much attention. In particular, the first third of the book seems to cling to Mata and Kuni, almost as though they alone are all that's needed to describe Dara. During a pivotal battle, Kuni gives a speech praising the sacrifices and valor of women but this could seem tossed-off and gratuitous in the moment. I honestly don't think it is. As the story progresses more females characters enter and one, in particular, provides a much needed counterpoint to the Mata and Kuni. Again, as stated above, Liu doesn't leave Dara in the same place it started. The sequel, "The Wall of Storms," appears set to explore a world open to a great many different types of conflicts and characters.

***

I'm pleased to announced that another chapter is available in my espionage thriller, "Agent Shield and Spaceman." Thank you for reading, and if you get a chance, please let me know what you think by either commenting directly or going over to Web Fiction Online to leave a quick review. Enjoy!





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